Many of us raised on Southeastern Conference football are snobs, noses stuck high in the air, looking down on those from so-called lesser leagues.
Go ahead. Admit it. Whether you scream “War Eagle!” or yell “Roll Tide Roll!” on fall Saturdays in stadiums that take on the feel of great cathedrals for the unwashed masses, you dismiss a team like Utah.
It’s a fluke that the Utes are playing Alabama on Friday in the Sugar Bowl, right?
It’s OK. You can admit it. It’s a new year, so you might as well start it by telling the truth.
It’s hard to take Utah seriously, right? Forget the Utes are 12-0 and playing in a Bowl Championship Series game for the second time in five seasons. Georgia, Florida and LSU have played in two BCS games each in that same span. Alabama and Auburn have played in only one apiece. No other SEC school has sniffed a BCS game and such a big payday.
But those of us from the SEC don’t look at a Utah with respect. We thump our collective chest and loudly point out that Florida and LSU have won the last two national championships in cake walks.
We look at a Utah with utter skepticism. It’s part of our DNA.
Just who are these guys who rolled unbeaten out of the Mountain West Conference like an avalanche into New Orleans? That’s how we look at it. We question it.
Then we throw the historical dagger.
Didn’t this happen last year? Didn’t Hawaii come into the Sugar Bowl unbeaten with something to prove against Georgia? How did that work out?
Good for the real Dogs to the tune of 41-10. Not so good for the underdog.
Though natural, is it fair to compare Utah to Hawaii?
Ask Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.
“I don’t think there is a lot of bearing on this based on what happened last year,” Whittingham said. “Obviously, we want to play well, that’s the most important thing. We have to go out and play well and be competitive and represent our conference and the University of Utah.”
What happened to Hawaii last year puts no additional pressure on the Utes, Whittingham said.
“What happened to Hawaii was a situation that we don’t feel we are carrying a torch for that game or anything like that,” he said.
Utah doesn’t have to carry a torch for anybody. The Utes are riding a seven-game bowl winning streak since 1999. In the BCS Fiesta Bowl following the 2004 season, Utah beat Big East champion Pittsburgh 35-7.
But Pittsburgh is not Alabama.
“Alabama is a formidable opponent with one of the most storied programs in all of college football — if not the most storied,” Whittingham said. “Alabama is steeped in tradition — they are a tremendous opponent for us.”
That tradition includes 12 national titles, 56 bowl appearances, one of the greatest coaches to ever blow a whistle and more bravado than all of the great Mountain West can muster.
The highlight of Utah’s football tradition? Every time a quarterback shuffles the ball to the running back cutting underneath him, the announcer calls it a “Utah pass.”
Maybe that’s unfair, but when you say Utah football, admit it, the “Utah pass” is the first thing that comes to mind.
Few in SEC country know the Utes have played in 13 bowl games and won 10 of them. That’s just not on the radar.
“Everybody gets brainwashed by their surroundings,” said Utah running backs coach David Schramm. “Do the people in the SEC get on the Internet and see how the West Coast teams are doing?”
“You can’t compare us to a Georgia, Tennessee or Kentucky,” Schramm said. “But what you will see is a bunch of young men playing their tails off.”
And they will be led by quarterback Brian Johnson, the Mountain West Conference Offensive Player of the Year and the winningest QB in school history. The Utes defense is 12th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 17 points per game. Utah also can clamp down the run, allowing 104 rushing yards per game.
Yeah, but who did they do it against?
It’s not easy to dismiss the Utes’ schedule. Who can’t beat Wyoming? Tennessee couldn’t. Who can’t beat Oregon State? Southern Cal couldn’t.
Who couldn’t beat Michigan? OK, that’s not fair because everybody beat Michigan this year.
Whittingham defends the schedule.
“We don’t pay any attention to it,” he said. “Our track record against BCS schools is very good. In fact, I think we have the most wins against BCS teams in the country, going back to 2000 or thereabouts. I know we have fared very well. This year, we had Oregon State on the schedule, who had just come off a big win at USC, and we were able to get a victory there.”
So the Utes just ignore the skeptics.
“We hear the BCS vs. non-BCS debate all the time,” Whittingham said, “but we really don’t pay attention to it.”
Johnson puts it this way: “It would be huge for our school to beat someone as well-known as Alabama. It’s right there in front of us. We just have to go out there and play our game and not let the magnitude of the game get to us.
“Once we’re on the field, we’re just playing football.”
But with the opportunity to make a statement. Utah offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig said it would be the “biggest win in Utah football history” if the 11-point underdog pulls out the upset.
Utah is playing with a purpose. Alabama is playing to defend the honor of college football’s power structure, especially the Southeastern Conference.
Ignore the impulse to look down your nose at these guys from Salt Lake City.
This isn’t Hawaii. Urban Meyer used an unbeaten season at Utah in 2004 to springboard to Florida and one national championship, two if the Gators win next week.
This is the first time Utah and Alabama have met. But the Utes are 0-6 against the SEC.
It’s going to be easy for Alabama, right?
Don’t bet on it.
ContactChuck Williamsat 706-320-4485